On 21 October 2020, Nicola Macbean, Director, The Rights Practice, spoke at an online panel event held by the London School of Economics on “Civil Society Under Threat: Covid-19, authoritarianism and more”. The event focused on the rise of populist regimes, increasing authoritarian tendencies and Covid-19 tightening controls over civil society.

Nicola highlighted the very small space available for completely independent and unregistered civil society groups in China. Police monitor well known activists and invite them to “drink tea”, a euphemism for being questioned. Civil society groups continue to creatively use the space available. There are examples of effective advocates using the government’s own language and commitment to ‘leave no one behind’ to frame their arguments.

In recent months, experienced Chinese lawyers have been able to hold small-scale workshops and trainings, both physical and online, on international law. Despite the obstacles to applying human rights law in China, many lawyers and rights defenders are still keen to learn about these evolving international principles for use in their own work. Small groups continue to engage locally on human rights issues such as women’s rights, conditions in detention, and the death penalty.

This is much more difficult for politically sensitive topics. The repression faced by Uyghurs in Xinjiang is an area totally off limits for even the most dedicated and brave human rights defenders.

The case of Chen Qiushi also highlights how the authorities have used the Covid-19 pandemic to restrict the space for freedom of expression. Chen, a citizen journalist, was “forcibly quarantined” in February 2020 for reporting on the Chinese government response to the virus in Wuhan. He is believed to be in detention but his exact whereabouts are still unknown.

It is important that we support these groups and individuals within China as much as possible to build their capacity to be effective agents for reform. The future of human rights in China will affect us all.